“Go and work as the cook aboard a traditional sailing vessel,” they said. “It’ll be fun and you’ll get to go to the sea shanty festival in Paimpol!” they said. After a day and a half, I’d just about broken and was making plans to grab my bags and escape as soon as we hit France.
Was it the frantic resupply day where I was greeted with a colossal oversupply of food, a 10-minute walk to and from the office where the food was delivered and the pouring rain that we had to trudge through in order to transport victuals to the ship? Or perhaps the thinly veiled disappointment of the captain and captain’s advisor as they watched me struggle to store all the food (offering no assistance whatsoever) in the tiny fridge/freezer and storage lockers and quite obviously thought they’d landed themselves with a woefully inadequate cook? Maybe it was arriving to find the galley in utter disarray and having to wade through the mess in order to plate up an arrival meal for the charter guests? Or the stifling confines of the galley – a tiny space dominated by a hot diesel range with just enough room for one person to stand comfortably? The grey water bag that needed to be hand pumped after every 10 litres that went down the sink and that released an unpleasant odour with each pump? Or the constant call for cups of tea from all and sundry (particularly the skippers) – seemingly whenever I managed to snag 10 minutes for a nap in the mess or when things were really getting hectic in meal preparations.
Ultimately, it was bloody hard yakka – generally around 16 hot, sweaty, frantic hours slaving over the stove for the first few days. To put it into perspective, I was drinking somewhere in the region of 10 -12 litres of water each day… and not having to go to the toilet much because it was all pouring out of me in sweat! I was constantly terrified that one of my dishes would misfire completely and I’d be left with a hungry, unhappy crew that might be tempted to bung me into the pot in order to atone for an inedible meal.
I missed home, I missed my family and I missed my mates but somehow I managed to make it to Paimpol without poisoning anyone – even keeping the vegetarians on board reasonably happy.
Those first few days were a complete blur – cook, eat, sleep, repeat and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I was able to venture up on deck to take in the view. Thank heavens for Diggs (my incredible, turbo-charged, gorgeous, ray of sunshine mate from Leader) who consistently came through with a helping hand just when the tide of dishes was threatening to overwhelm me or poking her head down the hatch to make sure I didn’t miss a beautiful panorama of the Channel Islands or the French coastline.
Working in the galley allowed me to get a really interesting perspective on the guests aboard because I spent a lot of time pottering away whilst they ate or relaxed in the adjoining mess. The roll call for the 11-day voyage included:
Tony (the skipper – a salty fisherman who has skippered every single Brixham trawler that still sails the seas based out of England. Strong white tea, 2 sugars).
Gav (the incumbent skipper – on holiday for this voyage and making the most of it by doing very little work of any description. Simply loves the sea and sailing – a decent bloke. Strong white coffee in the morning/strong white tea at all other times).
Jelly (the first mate. Stunningly interesting individual who wrote the textbook on social media as a teenager, spent a few years as a social media and marketing consultant for some of the biggest firms on the planet, got sick of it and now lives on a boat and earns a living working on sailing vessels and doing private consultancy work. Earl grey, white, no sugar – she’s sweet enough).
Helen-Mary “Digs” Denning (the bosun. Awarded most-nicknames-on-board including “Duracell” by some. 20 years old, super competent hands-on sailor and a great friend to boot. Will no doubt be involved in a renaissance of alternative schooling methods in the near future. White tea, white coffee, always accepted with a cheeky grin).
Jacquie (Jersey heritage – a primary school teacher on the verge of a breakthrough as a young adult novelist. I’d have struggled without her calm wisdom and help in the kitchen. White coffee in the morning).
Maria and Chris (primary school teacher and biochemical doctor respectively. Both vegetarian with a super sense of humour – sharing the honeymoon suite 2-berth and sailing to Paimpol for their wedding anniversary. A breath of fresh air in the long galley hours. White coffee and tea for both).
Rob (yet another teacher. A genuinely top bloke – plays cricket and loves to rub in an English Ashes victory. Black tea and coffee to match his black heart!)
Spencer (Englishman living in Stuttgart. A delightful personality, but a liability up on deck. Made a name for himself on board by prematurely untying dangerous working lines and letting go of loose halyards. White tea).
Chris (a sea shanty tragic. Loves a language, a poem, a tune and a yarn and plays the squeezebox. Retired globetrotter – his work took him to the Middle-East for an extended period. White tea, occasionally coffee).
Sylvia (a chemical engineer with a talent for getting in the way. Helped out a lot in the galley and enjoyed herself despite her constant whingeing. White tea).
Tim (hard of hearing, suspiciously deep tan. The brownest Englishman I’ve ever met. White tea or white instant coffee).
Graham (a gentle soul. Grew up in Singapore, has been sailing for pleasure ever since the age of 14. Wins the award for “most roped in individual” because he was often lurking around the galley when jobs needed doing. White tea).
Davey (a seasoned scallywag who lets his hair down on sailing trips once a year. Wicked sense of humour. Constantly on the prowl for the local birdlife. The resident fruitbat – was caught pinching peaches in the early days of the trip. White tea)
Paul (the joker in the pack. Squeezebox player, always ready with a witty remark or a hearty laugh. White tea).
Peter (classic car mechanic. Has worked on just about every classic car you can imagine but drives a battered old Fiat 500. Taking off to see his youngest daughter married a week after the voyage finished. White tea, white coffee).
Stopping off in a sheltered Guernsey bay and up a small French river on the way to the festival provided some incredible highlights in the first two days of the voyage. It was a bit of a reward to be up before the rest of the crew and bask in the early morning atmosphere before getting stuck into the breakfast service. There were some sights that couldn’t be captured properly with a camera – the rugged coastal cliffs and caves of Guernsey and the woodlands and quaint houses lining the river in Brittany. What an absolute gee up – and we hadn’t even reached the festival yet! I took particular delight in a few late night and early morning loo-with-a-views off the stern of the ship and into the water. There’s no better tonic to a frantic day in the galley than to relieve oneself into a French river whilst watching a blanket of stars twinkling away overhead.
Eventually, we made it to Paimpol and into the locked harbour – I heard stories that the entry was particularly stressful due to the vast number of boats all jostling for position and the double gated harbour, which secures a constant water level despite the raging tides that flow in and out by tens of metres a few times a day. One luckless captain managed to snap the bowsprit off another boat after an unintentional bout of boat-jousting.
And then it was on with the festival – starting with an almighty bang when the crew of the boat berthed on our port side transported a full DJ system onto their decks and proceeded to launch into an enormous dance party. It had to be halted several times because their deck was visibly bouncing and flexing under the weight of 40 or so vigorous dancers. It raged on until about 4am – not bad considering the festival hadn’t even officially begun!
So, from Saturday until Monday the routine was established: up early in the morning to rustle up croissants and other delicacies for breakfast, breakfast service, wandering the festival for most of the day and then back down the hatch to prepare a meal for the hungry crew. After dinner it was party time and some memorable times were had including sloshing barefoot in the mud to the sounds of Orange Blossom (an eclectic French world-music/beats band), having the party boat on our port side shut down by Mr Plod when residents started complaining about the ruckus, sharing a drink or three with the crazy sailors aboard the other vessels and cutting the rug listening to a legend of reggae on the final evening. Sleep was certainly not a priority!
During the days, it was great fun to stroll the festival grounds taking in the sights, the stalls, the smells and the harbour teeming with sailing ships of just about every shape and size. Even better was the opportunity to escape the madness and stroll the cobblestoned streets of the old town to do some window-shopping and sit quietly with a coffee and a crepe, watching the world go by. A tool shop with a vast collection of vintage sailing knives was the most tempting store that I came across. I took the opportunity to visit some of the local chandleries and restock on my dwindling supply of line and shackles from a rainbow of patterns and colours.
It was a great relief that most of the passengers were keen to sample the local cuisine, meaning that I had two dinners and most lunches off work! It also allowed me some time to take a much-needed inventory and figure out exactly what I had and what needed to be used up in the near future.
As a result, my carefully constructed meal plan went out the window completely and I was really thinking on my feet for most of the voyage – planning meals day by day according to what ingredient was developing mould at the quickest rate.
I also developed a bit of a reputation for re-using leftovers (stale bread into bread and butter pudding, paella and risotto into arancini balls etc etc), for constantly wearing shorts and T-shirt no matter the weather, for using cinnamon in just about every dish and for “cooking too much of that healthy shit.” But I was really chuffed to hear reports at the end of the voyage that it was some of the best food that folks had eaten on boats and that everyone gave me an A+ for effort.
Some of the culinary highlights included a spot on Butterscotch Pudding (thanks mum and Jane), top notch Bread & Butter Pudding (onya Jamie), Anzac Biscuits (Straya, get it up ya!) brilliant Broccoli Cream Soup (they didn’t even notice the broccoli was well past it), Birthday Pasta (thanks mum and Jane again) and a Lamb Roast that threatened to turn the veggos into carnivores for just one meal.
On the last day in port, I managed to snag a couple of hours to myself and walked to the local swimming pool to unwind with a punishing couple of kilometres of swimming (my standard coping mechanism). What a bizarre experience! Through the front doors and up to the reception I went, managing to bumble my way to an entry ticket with some very broken French. I was about to head for the change-rooms when the receptionist thrust a small piece of lycra toward me and indicated that it wasn’t an optional piece of equipment. On closer inspection, I discovered it was a swimming cap (in order to keep the patrons’ hair out of the pool, apparently). No problem, smiled Doyle and headed for the entry only to be brought up short by several doors, none of which had any indication of gender, but which all contained a very aggressive looking sign mentioning something about les enfants (the children). It was quite confronting to think that with one wrong step I might accidentally step into the wrong change-room and irreparably tarnish my reputation in Paimpol! After a good few minutes of deliberation, the receptionist took pity and pointed me toward the door on the left – through I stepped and into a locker room. Perfect! So I chose a locker and was just about to down dacks to put on my togs when a lady and a few kids stepped came strolling through. They were about 5 seconds early enough to avoid an unwanted experience with a prime specimen of Australian snake. Meanwhile, yours truly was 100% stumped at this stage and cautiously explored the rest of the locker room (no doubt looking like a total creep in the process), which gave way to a row of showers and a block of cubicles further on. “Righto,” I thought to myself, “here’s the dunnies and the showers,” before being even more bewildered at the sight of a lady (who had obviously been swimming already) showering alongside a young lad (who had obviously not been swimming yet)! Both in cossies, of course. In addition, the cubicles I had assumed to be toilets proved to be empty and had a door on either end! At this stage, I was utterly bewildered, flummoxed and was beginning to get a little frustrated as my precious swimming time was ticking away. So I chose a locker, feigned busyness and kept an eye on the movements of the locals as they carried their togs into the cubicles, locked up and emerged after a time having changed. They then proceeded to have a quick shower before entering the pool area to swim. Strange customs indeed, but when in France, so I followed suit and enjoyed a much needed dose of physical exercise.
Back aboard once more, I fell into the routine of life as the cook – helped out immeasurably by a roster of washing up helpers, an initiative suggested by the ever-helpful Jacquie. We stopped up a French river once more, enjoyed a day exploring the stunning Ile de Brehat and stocked up on some supplies on Guernsey to prepare for the final 48 hour crossing of the English Channel.
Although it was incredibly tempting to leave the ship in the sorry state it had been in when I arrived, I pitched in with an all-over cleanup and waved goodbye to our guests as they dribbled off the ship and back to the real world. I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to recreate a classic image from the Young Endeavour (where shirt, shoes and pants were a necessity in the galley). Around mid-afternoon Denning and I said fond farewells to the other staff and took off in the direction of Devon in England’s south-west where I would spend a day and half with her incredibly welcoming family.
And so, in typical English drizzle, the adventure concluded back in Brixham 11 days after it had begun. Once again, I had visited places I never would have dreamed of going, experienced a Sea Shanty Festival and worked in a job that I wouldn’t have imagined working in. After all the rough times, I’m not sure I’d change a thing and I’m pretty certain that I’ll get short term memory loss, forget how tough it was and sign myself up for something similar in the near future. My thanks go out to Julie and Mano (you know who you are) for convincing me to give it a crack and to old mate Diggs for helping me not to go AWOL in France. In the meantime, I’m about ready to see the colour green once more and have some land adventures!